In the excitement of the Olympics politics has been somewhat muted, but not non-existent. Personally before the Games started I was in the ‘neutral’ category, feeling that they were broadly a good idea but fearing that they might turn out to be an expensive disaster. Like so many others I was won over. Unlike most other major sporting events which are generally ‘single sport’, there was plenty of choice to dip in and out of.
One of the ‘political’ issues which surfaced early on was the concern about the proportion of athletes who came from private schools. Originally raised largely by those ‘on the left’ as a matter of the continuing influence of class and privilege, the issue rapidly became highjacked by the right as another stick with which to beat up State education.
The narrative favoured by David Cameron is that lower representation of athletes from state schools has nothing to do with resources or money or facilities, but all to do with attitude. The line is that state schools don’t encourage sporting competition and teachers won’t help in sports. So the answer to how to improve the situation conveniently has nothing to do with increasing resources and all to do with changing attitudes. So the Prime Minister’s prescription is to make ‘competitive team sports’ compulsory in primary schools. At the same time he deflects criticism of his abandonment of a target of a minimum of two hours PE in school by saying that in many cases schools ‘ticked this box’ with things like Indian Dancing, Zumba and circus skills.
There are a number of problems with this narrative. First in the event state school pupils did not do quite so badly as was originally suggested. As at Saturday 11th of the 105 athletes that won medals, 43 had been privately educated and 62 state educated. OK still not a reflection of the proportions in our schools (only 7% of pupils overall are privately educated) but not quite the disastrous showing for the state sector some people were suggesting.
There’s a tendency to lurch in policy (perhaps particularly in education?) from one extreme to another. As someone whose school sports were nearly all of the ‘team competitive’ variety I remember how awful that could be for those whose ‘bag’ it wasn’t. In fact what I think I perfected was being able to ‘peel off’ in the opposite direction to the bus to the sports field. (As I write this it only now occurs to me for the first time that perhaps it was so easy to get away with this because actually the PE staff turned a blind eye to the absence of those who were unwilling and poorly co-ordinated!) When my own children were introduced to a variety of sports in the early years of secondary education I thought how much better that was. It included the obvious football, rugby etc but also a variety of other options. Perhaps wholly co-incidentally all four of my children are more ‘sporty’ than either my husband or I despite both being of the ‘competitive team sports’ generation.
Now I’m sure we’ve all come up against examples of some of the ‘competition is bad’ ideas taken to extremes. But I reckon Jessica Ennis gave the clearest answer in pointing out that at the outset children had to enjoy sport first before introducing too much competition.
However resources and facilities do matter. In the last week I’ve passed by the public tennis courts at the Meadows most days, seeing them packed with players. When we started taking our older two children to play there in the early 1980s the condition of these courts was awful and learning to play properly when balls bounced erratically off the rough surface and the holes was almost impossible. The difference made when the Council resurfaced the courts was huge, and in terms of usage the courts have not looked back.
It’s the same in schools. The main sports field for Boroughmuir High School at Meggetland was in a dreadful state for years – so poorly drained that for much of the winter the pitches couldn’t be used. As for the state of the changing rooms! This wasn’t a temporary problem – there’s sixteen years between my oldest and youngest sons, one a footballer, the other rugby, and nothing changed in that time. Eventually the sports facilities were transformed at Meggetland, albeit controversially as it was part of a ‘deal’ with a developer who built flats on part of the area. It’s easy to criticise such deals – (and as part of the political commentary during these Games some people have pointed to loss of school playing fields as part of PFI deals) – but was it better to have the larger space if it was of such poor quality?
Which brings me to a final thought – we do need to have a serious public debate about whether we can achieve the ‘ends’ we want if we are not prepared to fund the ‘means’. I was struck by the results of one opinion poll last week which showed support for better sports facilities but at the same time around 57% were against increasing taxes to pay for it.
We can argue about how taxes should be levied and on whom but we can’t pretend that resources don’t matter. And that’s something which applies way beyond sport.